Latinos in Rhode Island

DOMINICANS | Los Dominicanos

Brief History of Dominican Migration to the U.S.

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As it has been with Cuba and Puerto Rico, the United States has always maintained a strong strategic geo-political and economic interest in the Dominican Republic. By the late 19th century, the U.S. was involved in covert plans to annex the island, and, following a period in which it controlled the collection and application of Dominican customs revenue, it occupied the island from 1916 to 1924. At their departure, the military forces left in power General Rafael Leónides Trujillo, a dictator who would go on to rule the island for thirty years of the most brutal tyranny in the Caribbean.

In 1963, two years after the fall of Trujillo’s regime, more than 10,000 Dominicans began to enter into the United States, where two years before this figure was a mere 3,045. By 1966, when the U.S. was removing its forces from the island, more than 16,500 Dominicans were entering the U.S. every year.

There are several factors that caused Dominican immigration to the U.S. during earlier waves. During the 1970s and 80s, the biggest reason for Dominican immigration was family reunification. Facilitated by the Family Reunification Act of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, many Dominicans came to the U.S. under the sponsorship of spouses, parents or siblings. They were thus welcomed into the United States by an already-established Dominican community--one who facilitated their entrance into the economic and social aspects of American society.

Dominicans in Rhode Island

Although most literature today will chart the immigration patterns of Dominicans from the Dominican Republic to New York City, a sizable population of Dominicans can also be found in the City of Providence. The story of the Dominicans in Providence, however, is one of migration, not immigration. Between 1980 and 1990, the Hispanic population of Rhode Island grew by 132%, and during the next decade by 98.5%. Although many Dominicans have made their home in New York since the passage of the Family Reunification Act of 1965, their arrival to Rhode Island took place almost a decade later.

Beginning in the 1970s, and through the 1990s, Providence experienced a steady increase in its Hispanic population, mainly people looking for a way to get out of New York City. The migration of Dominicans and other Hispanics toward the New England states occurred for a variety of reasons. Like most immigrants, the Dominicans came to the United States looking for a better life. Their trip northward stemmed from the same reasoning. Since New York City is the first stop for many Dominicans, the overcrowding of the City and the heavy concentration of Latinos there were cited as one of the main factors for leaving. Described by many Dominicans as beautiful due to its small-town-infrastructures, some of them moved to Providence to escape the City atmosphere and the tight ethnic enclaves. Dominicans currently living in Providence say that Rhode Island especially offered a safe environment for Dominicans with children.

Employment was another motivation for the migration from New York City to Providence. New factories started opening up in New England, and jobs became available to the Dominicans, mainly in jewelry and textile mills. During that time, it was said that jobs were so abundant that factory owners took to the streets to look for workers. And Dominicans who found these jobs, sent home word of the employment opportunities with money tucked inside their letters.

To many Dominicans, Providence was and still is the city of choice because this is where many of the first Hispanics settled, and continue to reside today. During the late 1950s and 1960s, there were not many Hispanics in Providence, and certainly fewer in other parts of Rhode Island, to help them acclimate to their new home. Without family, many Hispanics relied on the help of a woman named Josefina Rosario, and her family. Fondly known as Doña Fefa many people visited Providence before moving here, staying with Doña Fefa. To many, she was their only friend and ally. For years, Fefa and her husband, Tony, cordoned off sections of their apartment located on Broad Street in the Southside of Providence, and housed the newcomers. They helped their guests find jobs in restaurants, jewelry factories, textile mills. They went as far as to go with them to help them get driver’s licenses and social security cards, and even provided assistance with enrolling their children into the public schools.

According to an interview with Doña Fefa, she believed she and her husband, Tony, were the first Dominican couple to arrive and settle in Rhode Island from New York City in the 1960s, and the first to open a bodega (market) on Broad Street, South Providence called Fefa’s Market.

Today the Dominican Community is clearly the leader in Hispanic-owned businesses on Broad Street, Elmwood Avenue and Cranston Street in the City of Providence. Providence is now a community waiting to be shaped by Latinos, their experiences and their customs. A walk along Broad Street and other parts of the Southside of Providence today boasts the entrepreneurial endeavors of Dominicans in the form of bodegas, restaurants and beauty salons, among the many cultural symbols of success. Today’s Dominicans also boast the highest political activity among Latinos in Rhode Island. This community has helped elect four Dominicans to the Providence City Council, two Latinas and one Latino legislators to a House seat, and the first Senator to serve in the Rhode Island State House.

And of course, we cannot forget that in 2010, Providence residents elected the first Hispanic mayor of the city and the third elected and fourth serving Dominican-American mayor in the United States.

Puerto Ricans

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